A boy, dressed up as a cowboy, sits under a dining room table, clutching the rods of a chair like bars on a prison cell. “Let me outta here! Let me outta here!” he screams. It’s a scene from fictional adman Don Draper’s most acclaimed commercial, and though it may just be a spot for a floor wax, viewers of “Mad Men” know that it symbolizes much more. The show, which ends its fourth season Sunday, has repeatedly used enclosed spaces — elevators, closets, back seats — to reinforce the themes of secrecy, repression and isolation that are central to the show.
The design of the old Sterling Cooper office reflected the rigid hierarchy of the American workplace of the 1950s. The company itself was all white, and almost entirely WASP. The women were corralled in the wide-open secretarial pool — there for all to see — while the men carried on as they pleased behind the closed doors. The elevator was both the exception to this de facto segregation, and the most vivid illustration of it; it was the one space where different classes, races and genders mingled, however reluctantly.
In one episode, Don and young copywriter Peggy Olson lament the suicide of Marilyn Monroe. Peggy doesn’t understand how someone as famous as Marilyn could have felt alone. Hollis, the African American elevator operator, shares his theory, “Some people just hide in plain sight.” The larger significance of his words may have been lost on Don and Peggy, but not the audience. The elevator is the one heterogeneous space in the world of Sterling Cooper, even if Hollis is an invisible man to most of his white peers.
In contrast, the offices of the new upstart agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, suggest a new social order is underway. The space is a sleek rabbit warren of interconnected offices, hallways and interior windows, at once more open and more claustrophobic than its predecessor. It’s also a lot smaller.
As Bert Cooper, the agency’s senior partner, says in the premiere episode, “You have no idea how tiny this place looks to a stranger.” But size, as they say, isn’t everything. The agency’s new design is also a reflection of the social changes that were taking place in the country at large. Cooper — the agency’s oldest, white male — no longer even has his own office (he quit last week in a huff, but we’ll see if that holds in the season finale). A running gag this season has been his aimless loitering in the lobby, where Bert sits in his stocking feet, working on crossword puzzles and munching away on apples. Bert used to hole up in a cavernous, hermetic space in a far corner of the Sterling Cooper offices. Everyone had to remove their shoes before entering, and pretend to like Bert’s abstract expressionist paintings. It was the last bastion of privilege for a very eccentric white male. Now that space is at a premium, Bert — even if he returns to the fold — can no longer play the role of the agency’s Mad Prince Ludwig.
Not even the notoriously secretive Don Draper is allowed much privacy these days. After an unseemly fight with his secretary earlier this season, Don reaches for his trusty bottle of Canadian Club. Just then, Peggy’s head pops up in the small glass panel at the top of the wall between their offices. It was a moment of levity, but also delivered a more serious message: In this new, more open era, no one can hide.
Another center of change is the elevator. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is now housed at the Time-Life Building, and there are no elevator operators. On one level, this is a sign of the more egalitarian times ahead. The elevator, once the setting for reflections on social injustice, has now become something quite different: the last refuge of secrets.
In a recent episode, Don confronts Pete about an FBI investigation into his past. He enters the elevator after Pete, and asks another passenger to wait for the next one; Don doesn’t want anyone to penetrate the “cone of silence.” Even when there aren’t enormous secrets to protect, the privacy of the elevator allows characters to act in ways that are increasingly impossible elsewhere, as when office manager Joan Harris chastises Peggy for firing a sexist colleague.
“All you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary, and you’re another humorless bitch,” Joan says in her trademark calm-but-cutting tone. Then — ding! — the elevator doors open, and civility is reinstated. “Have a nice weekend. Goodnight, Peggy!” Stunned and trapped, Peggy can do little to defend herself, except wait for the doors to open.
Other small spaces — from closets to the back seats of cabs — have also been central to the show’s themes of desire and repression. Near the end of Season 2, Don’s neglected wife, Betty — agonizing over the news that she is pregnant and that her husband has been carrying on numerous affairs — initiates a tryst with a handsome stranger in the cramped backroom of a shadowy bar.
In Season 3’s “The Wee Small Hours,” tobacco executive Lee Garner Jr. makes a pass at closeted gay art director Sal Romano in a darkened editing booth. In each case, the proximity and privacy of the enclosed space encourage sexually transgressive behavior, but the mores of the real world can’t be forgotten. For Betty, the fling is a private act of revenge that allows her to return to her troubled marriage; For Sal, the run-in with Lee costs him his job.
The same kind of locations often set the stage for flirtatious encounters rather than sordid peccadilloes. Peggy’s blossoming romance with Abe began with a kiss in a closet while hiding from the police at an illegal loft party. Later, Peggy is forced to sit on Abe’s lap on a cramped ride back from Jones Beach and shortly thereafter, they fall into bed together.
The effect is the same — behind closed doors, people follow their desires — but the emotional ramifications are wildly different. In the dark corners of the “Mad Men” universe, pleasure has come to replace shame.
Perhaps next season, they’ll turn on the lights.